From the monthly archives:

November 2008

Furious agreement

by John Q on November 15, 2008

Back when I was a high school debater, my team once had to take the negative position on the topic ‘Australian democracy is dying’. With the Vietnam war at its worst, conscription of 18-year olds (old enough to die, but in those days too young to vote) a big issue, and a conservative government that had been in office since before my classmates and I were born, it didn’t seem likely that we were going to carry the audience with Panglossian rhetoric. So, we decided to argue instead that Australian democracy couldn’t be dying because it was already dead. The resulting debate was somewhat farcical, as we rushed to agree with every piece of gloomy evidence raised by the affirmative side, and pile on with our own. We won easily, but I gave up debating not too long after that.

I’m reminded of this episode by a piece by Robert Kagan, criticising the idea that American power is declining. In effect, Kagan argues that, while things might seem bad for American power just now, they’ve actually been terrible for decades. Unchallenged economic dominance had already been lost by 1960, when the US share of the world economy (around half in the immediate aftermath of WWII) had fallen to 24 per cent. The international image of the US was trashed by Vietnam and other disasters of the 1960s. Military failures are nothing new. So, those who, decade after decade, proclaim that America is in decline have simply forgotten how bad things were in the past.

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Quick Links (well, quick by my standards)

by John Holbo on November 14, 2008

ASIFA Animation Archive has a complete scan of a WWII era cartooning guide ‘for use of U.S. Armed Forces personnel only’. It’s a pretty solid little how-to. (Confidentionally, I’m kinda nostalgic about this stuff, as you may have noticed.) Bonus points for the advice about rendering racial stereotypes and for advising budding cartoonists to sketch their fellow soldiers in the shower. (Don’t ask, don’t tell – just sketch.) Also, ‘cartooning the female’ sounds like an MLA paper title.

In other news: Will Wilkinson linked, a few weeks ago, to a TED lecture by the psychologist, Jonathan Haidt on ‘the moral mind: the real difference between liberals and conservatives’. Will didn’t agree with it much. But I quite liked it. It pretends to be doing way more paradigm-busting than a basically pat, introductory lecture could possibly manage, but that’s a pardonable rhetorical sin. It fit well with intro philosophy material I teach (not about liberalism/conservatism but about pretty much all the other stuff Haidt talks about). So I suggested to my students to watch and they liked it very much. Here’s my favorite bit (round about minute 10). He apparently did a survey in which he asked respondents whether, if they were buying a dog, they would want the one that was a member of a breed known for being ‘independent minded and relating to its owner as a friend and equal’; or would you prefer the one that is ‘extremely loyal to its home and family and doesn’t warm up quickly to strangers’? Turns out, liberals pick the first option more, conservatives the second.

[you can’t really read the scale on my little screencap. It runs along the bottom from liberal, through neutral, to conservative.]

This was funny to me because I had made a rather similar point to my students by talking about the ethics of promise-keeping, quoting Nietzsche from Genealogy of Morals: “To breed an animal with the right to make promises—is not this the paradoxical task that nature has set itself in the case of man? is it not the real problem regarding man?” I have this great schtick I do about that one – the Kantian dogshow. (Way funnier than Haidt with his ‘fetch, please!’ joke.) Here’s my cartoon to go with. (I really want to do a better one. A nervous group of humans hovering around an intense little dog that looks like it might be about to make a promise. I think Jules Pfeifer could draw a good one.) [click to continue…]

Of Time and the City

by Chris Bertram on November 13, 2008

When I first started going out with my partner Pauline, in the early 1980s, I had a somewhat dismal opinion of Liverpool. She wanted to show me how great the city could be, so she insisted on taking me to the Palm House in Sefton Park. I rather vividly remember how distressed she was to find that the beatiful structure of her childhood was derelict and vandalized. My father, whose mother came from the city often recalls a visit just after the war, to a city that was incomparably exciting. He remembered the overhead railway, the buses, the underground – a place alive.

That Liverpool is the subject of Terence Davies’s wonderful poetic treatment, “Of Time and the City”: (“Official site”: ). He takes the city of empire, of shipbuilding and docks, of sport, of children playing on working-class streets — the city of his childhood — and traces its decline and collapse through the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, he indicates, through music — especially his use of Mahler’s 2nd — that there is life yet and the possibility of return. It is hard to give a flavour of the combination of image, music, poetry and personal recollection that Davies conveys, but he tells us of a place that is badly damaged but still has immense weight and grandeur (aptly evoked in his shots both of industrial landscape and of great Victorian buildings like St George’s Hall). Of course it is a film that will mean most to those from the city, perhaps especially the legion of exiled scousers. But it said a lot to me, with a more episodic connection, and even those who only know it from a distance will love Davies’s work. Get to see it if you possibly can.

We’re In Ur Librariez, Controlling Ur Recordz

by Henry Farrell on November 13, 2008

“Aaron Swartz”: tells us about another effort to fence off the information commons.

OCLC was founded in 1967 by Fred Kilgour, a pioneering Ohio librarian, with a simple idea: Instead of having every library in the country separately catalog a book — laboriously entering its title, author, and subjects in just the right format — why not have one person enter the cataloging information, upload it to a central computer, and then let everyone else download a copy from there? It was called WorldCat, for World Catalog, and it’s been a resounding success. … OCLC’s control passed from librarians and academics to business people (its senior executive comes from consulting firm Deloitte & Touche). They realized they had a monopoly on their hands … used the resulting flow of cash to fund a spree of acquisitions of commercial companies and expand into other fields … dragged its feet in getting library records on the Web …

All this was bad, but it was tolerable. At least folks could build an alternative to OCLC. So that’s what I and others have been doing — “Open Library”: provides a free collection of over 20 million book records that anyone can browse, download, contribute to, and reuse for absolutely free. Naturally, OCLC hasn’t been a fan. They’ve been trying to kill it from the beginning — threatening its funders with lawsuits, insulting it in the press, and putting pressure on member libraries not to cooperate. … But recently, it’s gone one step way too far. Not satisfied with controlling the world’s largest source of book information, it wants to take over all the smaller ones as well. It’s now demanding that every library that uses WorldCat give control over all its catalog records to OCLC. It literally is asking libraries to “put an OCLC policy notice”: on every book record in their catalog. It wants to own every library. It’s not just Open Library that’s at risk here — LibraryThing, Zotero, even some new Wikipedia features being developed are threatened.

This seems to me to be a terrible idea, for all the obvious reasons. I suggest that CT readers who have a mind to should “sign this petition”:, and email their librarians to request that they investigate this and seriously consider protesting this proposal. I’ve drafted a short email (which I’ve sent to my own university librarian) which people can use as a model if they want; it’s below the fold.

Update: “Inside Higher Ed”: has a story this morning suggesting that the offending policy has been partly amended.

By the time news of the policy, to take effect in February, spread across the blogosphere, OCLC posted a new draft softening some of its requirements — for example, by making it optional to use or keep the text referring to WorldCat’s policies and clarifying that non-commercial use of the records was generally protected, except in cases where it could interfere with OCLC’s mission. And while the shift signals some openness to members’ concerns, some still aren’t satisfied, especially with the way the initial decision was made. … Terry Reese, the Gray Chair for Innovative Library Services at Oregon State University Libraries, said in an e-mail that it is partially a philosophical issue: “At its core, libraries have always been about providing access to our information and our metadata. We don’t make value judgments as to why people may want/need to use our materials — but that’s essentially what OCLC is doing now (whether intentional or not).” He continued, “As OCLC is oft to bring up, WorldCat is a member created resource — yet, OCLC seems to be the only organization that is allowed to have unfettered access to that data. There are many ways to protect the membership’s investment in the data that has been created.” But for OCLC, the issue is one of adapting to a Google-oriented world without sacrificing the value of WorldCat.
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42 Writers for Liberty

by Chris Bertram on November 13, 2008

Liberty, the British organization that campaigns for civil liberties and against state abuse of power, has a new website centred on the British government’s proposal to hold people without charge in terrorism cases for up to 42 days. Fortunately, the House of Lords has thrown the measure out for the time being, but they may well try to bring it back again. In the meantime, whether in celebration of the measure’s defeat or anticipation of its return, you can read the thoughts of a collection of writers including Ian Rankin, Julian Barnes and Stella Duffy (particularly good, I thought). User Sues; Schoolmates Weren’t Really Looking for Him“, reports Wired:

When told user Anthony Michaels last Christmas Eve that his former school chums were trying to contact him, he pulled out his wallet and upgraded to the premium membership that would let him contact long-lost fifth-grade dodge-ball buddies and see if his secret crush from high school had looked him up online. But once he’d parted with the $15, Michaels learned the shocking truth: No one he knew was trying to contact him at all.’s come-on was a lie, and he’d been scammed. … “Upon logging into his Gold Membership profile in order to view the classmate contacts … Plaintiff discovered that in fact, no former classmate of his had tried to contact him or view his profile,” the complaint reads. “Of those users who were characterized … as members who viewed Plaintiff’s profile, none were former classmates of Plaintiff or persons familiar with or known to Plaintiff for that matter.”


But Perhaps It Takes an Armchair Sociologist

by Henry Farrell on November 12, 2008

Via “TechPresident”:, this “story”: about fundraising and t-shirts.

So I got another e-mail from Barack Obama. I get ‘em all the time. This one asked me for $30 to help replenish the funds of the Democratic National Committee, which apparently blew all its money exterminating the GOP. … I know the campaign is over, but I’m missing the fray. Besides, the e-mail says, if I donate the $30 I’ll get this cool Limited Edition T-shirt. … Okay, it’s a hideous T-shirt, but still. Funny thing, though: It turns out that a friend of mine got a similar e-mail today. But she was told that to get the same hideous Limited Edition T-shirt, _she’d have to cough up $100._ … It doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out what’s going on here. My friend made her donations in increments of $100. I made mine by letting BO tap my credit card for $25 a month.

This kind of generosity-to-a-cause discrimination has a certain economic rationale. But it seems to me nonetheless to be a very stupid way of raising money if (as here) there is a decent chance that people at the different price points will be able to compare notes with each other. My (perhaps flawed) back-of-the-envelope sense of the sociology of giving is that people are likely to be very highly sensitive to perceived unfairness in the allotment of tokens of recognition (even truly foul t-shirts like this one). If people get the same recognition for very different donations, then the perceived value of that recognition is going to plummet, and potential donors, rather than being motivated to give, are likely to be annoyed. That said, my knowledge of the literature on this topic basically amounts to vague memories of having read Titmuss 15 years ago, so I may be wrong … Kieran? Anyone else? ?

Arma diavlogumque cano

by Michael Bérubé on November 11, 2008

Because of his political naivete and his refusal to theorize power/knowledge in the previous post asking CT readers to “remember all those who have died as a result of the crimes of the rulers of the world,” I hereby declare war on John Quiggin.  And to belligerent blog commenters everywhere, I say:  We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that posts his scathingly critical comment with me shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition.

It’s got a nice ring to it.

Also, I’d like to announce that I have officially joined the ranks of the Bloggingheads.

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Armistice Day

by John Q on November 11, 2008

It’s 90 years today since the Armistice that brought a temporary halt to fighting on the Western Front of the Great War. The War had already brought forth the horrors of Bolshevism and fighting in Russia continued well beyond the Armistice. Within a few years, Fascism and Nazism were also on the march. Full-scale war resumed in the 1930s, first in Spain, Abyssinia and the Far East and then throughout the world. The War brought nothing but evil, and its evil has persisted through almost a century since it began.
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Maurice Stonefrost is dead

by Harry on November 10, 2008

Guardian obit here. Someone told me that the official assigned to Harry Perkins in A Very British Coup was modelled on him, but that may be apocryphal. This isn’t:

At the GLC Stonefrost worked with Labour and Conservative leaderships. During the moderate Labour administration of 1973-77, he had to negotiate with central government and the City to avoid any risk of London following New York into a financial mess. Then he ran the GLC’s finances for the radical Conservative leader Sir Horace Cutler.

But his work during the years of Ken Livingstone’s leadership, from 1981, allowed him to demonstrate his extraordinary capacity to run a big institution at a difficult time. Not only did he allow Livingstone to pursue his brand of politics within a legitimate budgetary framework, but when it came to the campaign against abolition of the GLC by Margaret Thatcher’s government, Stonefrost generated charts showing how unworkable the post-abolition world would be. His best effort was a “spider diagram” with hundreds of lines from London government organisations to each other, showing how abolition would create fragmentation and chaos.

At the height of the Thatcher v Livingstone struggle, Stonefrost’s officials pulled off an audacious stunt by manipulating the government’s complex local-government finance system so as to suck in £200m of additional grant after the end of a financial year. Worse, other authorities ended up paying for the shift of resources. The manoeuvre was wholly legal and very clever. It is hard to think of any other finance chief who would have had the ingenuity or confidence to do such a thing. Moreover, the government was left fuming with rage at seeing its own financial weaponry turned against itself.

One of the greatest municipal civil servants of his generation. No wikipedia entry.

Larry Solum has just posted an update of his Legal Theory Lexicon entry on Distributive Justice. I keep telling (graduate and undergraduate) students that they need to look at the Legal Theory Lexicon as their first stop for just about any concept that Solum covers. Its really an amazing resource. A decade ago you’d have needed access to a very good library to get hold of something half as good; now, anyone might come across it just by browsing.

Amity Shlaes: A Public Service Reminder

by Henry Farrell on November 10, 2008

I’m a bit worried that in all of the “pouring”: “of”: “cold”: “water”: on assorted “spanking”: “fantasies”: in: re unemployment during the Depression, people are losing track of the main point that needs to be hammered home: that Amity Shlaes is an unscrupulous hack. Readers may need to be reminded of her final two op-ed columns before her inglorious and swift departure from the pages of the _Financial Times._ [click to continue…]

Cognitive Disability Conference

by Harry on November 10, 2008

The Cognitive Disability conference at which Michael spoke (and to which he referred here) is now available as a podcast (more or less) in its entirety here. Some of the podcasts come through rather slowly, and, annoyingly, because I heard that it was so much fun, I can’t get the final session to load. Still, Michael’s talk comes through fine.

Images galore

by Eszter Hargittai on November 10, 2008

Almost a week after the elections, I continue to be obsessed with related news reading up on people involved with the campaign and the transition team as well as the myriad of interesting opinion pieces. I’ve also found some interesting visuals. Here are links to a few in case you haven’t seen them yet:

Bad models or bad modellers

by John Q on November 9, 2008

The idea that bad mathematical models used to evaluate investments are at least partially to blame for the financial crisis has plenty of appeal, and perhaps some validity, but it doesn’t justify a lot of the anti-intellectual responses we are seeing. That includes this NY Times headline In Modeling Risk, the Human Factor Was Left Out . What becomes clear from the story is that a model that left human factors out would have worked quite well. The elements of the required model are
(i) in the long run, house prices move in line with employment, incomes and migration patterns
(ii) if prices move more than 20 per cent out of line with long run value they will in due course fall at least 20 per cent
(iii) when this happens, large classes of financial assets will go into default either directly or because they are derived from assets that can’t pay out if house prices fall

It was not the disregard of human factors but the attempt to second-guess human behavioral responses to a period of rising prices, so as to reproduce the behavior of housing markets in the bubble period, that led many to disaster. A more naive version of the same error is to assume that particular observed behavior (say, not defaulting on home loans) will be sustained even when the conditions that made that behavior sensible no longer apply.

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